Crisis in Somalia: Why is the famine so severe and aid so difficult? How can you help?

Somalia is experiencing the worst famine the world has witnessed in a generation, the result of the region's worst drought in 60 years. The UN estimates that a quarter of the Somali population is now displaced—some 1.5 million people—and more than 10 million are in immediate need of food assistance or face starvation.

The demands are urgent, and getting adequate assistance to the region in time has been tough.

The Lookout asked experts on the area and the crisis for answers—and how you can help today.

Q: How did such a severe famine evolve ?

A: Three factors have caused the Somalia famine to be so severe, aid experts say: severe drought, severe lack of governance and severe poverty.

First, the Horn of Africa has experienced two seasons of unprecedented drought conditions. Second, there's been a total breakdown in governance in Somalia over the course of a civil war dating back more than 20 years. Third, people are already extremely impoverished. And the three circumstances are perilously interconnected.

"You have not had a government in Somalia for 22 years," Oxfam's Shannon Scribner told The Envoy. "There's a civil war. People suffer from extreme poverty. When you add in the worst drought in 60 years, people don't have any assets to cope... They don't have food reserves. They don't have livestock. When the livestock dies, they don't have much left."

Q: How many people are affected by the famine?

A: The State Department estimates that 11.5 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of emergency assistance or face starvation.

In addition, more than 800,000 Somalis have already fled to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. An estimated 1.5 million Somalis—a quarter of the population—are currently displaced from their homes, the aid coalition group Interaction says.

Some 9,000 new Somali refugees are fleeing to Kenya every week, and another 3,000 Somali refugees per week are entering Ethiopia, Oxfam's Scribner said.

U.S. officials warn refugee flows could rise. "We have heard troubling reports from inside Somalia that the combined daily arrival rates of 3,200 new refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya could rise still more dramatically as the situation in Somalia grows increasingly desperate," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ruben Brigerty for Population, Refugees and Migration told journalists at a special State Department briefing on the crisis last week.

Q: Was the Somalia famine preventable? How did it develop such severity and why wasn't the world better prepared for it?

A: In short, we should have been able to pre-empt this famine, or at least head off its severity, aid experts say.

"In the 21st century we shouldn't be experiencing famines on earth. These are preventable," said Sam Worthington, president of Interaction, a coalition of humanitarian aid and nonprofit groups based in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. and UN had good early warning information about the conditions on the ground related to food security and climate, aid experts said. For instance, it knew that there had been a fall drought and that a spring drought, if it occurred, would put millions of people at risk. Now, says Worthington, "As this famine unfolds, literally hundreds of thousands of lives and children's lives are at risk, and tens of thousands have already died."

But problematic relationships with governments in the region—from Somalia to Ethiopia—contributed to the lack of sufficient preparation for a response.

The militant Islamist group al-Shebaab, which controls parts of Somalia, kicked out aid groups in 2009 for being un-Islamic. Recently, U.S. officials have indicated that al-Shebaab, however, is not a monolithic organization, and that some of its local leaders are eager for aid groups to return.

"What you're looking at is a perfect storm: a humanitarian disaster compounded by political complexities, conflict and insecurity throughout the region," said Sarah Margon, a former Senate staffer who specializes in Africa, currently at the Center for American Progress. International aid groups that "don't have viable partners in Eritrea, Somalia and parts of Ethiopia are under serious risk, and the Ethiopian regime is becoming increasingly [autocratic]. The combination of all these sectors make a natural disaster response doubly difficult."

Q: What is the U.S. policy toward humanitarian aid going to parts of Somalia under the control of al-Shebaab?

A: The Obama administration announced last week that it is easing restrictions on humanitarian aid groups working to deliver aid to parts of Somalia under the control of al-Shebaab.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development "are authorized to provide grants and contracts to fund non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance in Somalia, including in areas under the de facto control of al-Shabaab," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists. NGOs would now be "covered under the license from the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab," Toner said.

"Our number-one goal is to save lives," a USAID official told journalists last week. "What we are mainly concerned about is creating the flexibility in all possible ways so that assistance can be provided."

Q: How can private citizens help?

A: Individual cash donations offer far greater flexibility and speed than governmental assistance—which comes with restrictions—to aid groups operating on the ground.

"In the fluid environment of where we are trying to help and help rapidly, the quickest and most effective way to provide a doctor to provide supplementary feeding or a blanket, are private donations," said Worthington. "Resources from governments, including our own, while needed, tend to be more directed." Funds raised from the public, he said, allow aid groups on the ground "to go, 'Hey, this is not a medical case, but let's provide nutritional feeding here,' or 'This camp here needs to be moved.' It removes all of the layers of constraint."

Q: How responsive has the public been so far to the Somali famine?

A: There's been something of a lag in public response, aid groups say, perhaps in part because the media have not had much of a presence in Somalia.

"We are not seeing the level of public response that we would like to see," according to Worthington. "The response clearly picks up as the images get out there. But it's not a place where the cameras are rolling. Where stories of how a family lost four of children get on the nightly news. Because of this—because of the difficulty of access, it's a little bit removed still. We hope that will eventually change with time and that the deep compassion we see in the American people, that is part of us, will be triggered to provide the resources."

Q: How can you help?

A: Interaction has a list of its members providing relief assistance in the Horn of Africa here: